Because of the fracking boom the United States has recently become the number one producer of natural gas, and is shooting for number one in oil production. The problem with this is two-fold. First, fossil fuel use contributes to global warming and a range of untoward health effects for both humans and the environment. Second, it is only a temporary solution to meeting our long term energy needs. We must develop truly sustainable energy supply for the future.
How are we doing on this front, especially with respect to our global economic competitors? Not so hot. One common argument for staying with the tried and true – but limited – fossil fuel industry is that it is the cheapest and therefore most economic resource base. This is only true if you completely ignore the cost of externalities such as cost to society of global warming and the cost of degraded health among the population.
There are many ways to measure a countries renewable energy production. Total produced, amount produced by various methodologies, percentage of total energy needs to mention just a few. Just about everybody needs electricity so for simplicity let’s compare renewable electrical energy production.
Countries with pronounced volcanic activity are well situated to produce geothermal energy. Iceland produces essentially 100 % of it electrical energy needs via geothermal processes. But Iceland is tiny, with a population not much larger than Little Rock.
Mountainous countries or those with with high rainfall have the potential for large amounts of hydropower. Norway produces over 100% of its electrical needs from hydropower. Excess power is exported to nearby European countries. Brazil has recently completed some large scale hydropower projects and now meets just over 90% of its needs. For comparison the United States produces about 7 % and China about 3 %.
Hydropower is a mature clean source of electrical energy so the developed countries have gone about as far as they can go with large scale hydropower. The real potential for expansion of renewable energy is wind and solar. First wind.
On a windy day Denmark, an island nation, can meet 100 % of its energy needs. On average however, they produce 30 % of electrical needs from wind and project to be at 50 % by 2020. The United States produces slightly more than 1 % and China slightly less than 1 % of total electrical energy production from wind.
Lastly but for the future maybe most importantly is solar. Current technology allows photovoltaic (PV) panels to capture about 15 % of the incident sunlight. By the way this is a couple of orders of magnitude more efficient than photosynthesis, so biomass is not considered in this analysis.
The world leader for solar is Germany where close to 5 % of their total electrical energy production comes from roof top solar arrays. The United States, 0.02 % and China 0.01 %. Our long term future on this planet depends to a large degree on our ability to develop sustainable energy supplies. Some countries, especially those in the western European community get it, the United States, not so much – at least not yet.